The Beauty of the Iowa Caucuses

Earnest, Personal, and Real, the System Brings Caucus-Goers and Candidates Together

“Before I knew the results, Caucus night felt to me like the best example of what Democracy should be.”

President Obama shared his reflections on Iowa, in an interview with Glenn Thrush of Politico, as the hours tick down to Monday evening when hundreds of thousands of Iowa caucus-goers will gather in gymnasiums, churches, and cafeterias to begin the actual process of choosing our next president. Obama explains that the Iowa Caucus “vindicated in my mind at least my view of what politics should be.”

I agree. I share both the President’s impression of what Iowa Caucus means for our democracy and his nostalgia for it. Thirteen years ago, in the summer of 2003, I packed up my Ford Bronco and drove from Santa Barbara to Des Moines — a place I’d never been before for a job I knew little about. I joined the John Kerry for President campaign staff as his Iowa communications director. Our headquarters was in an old used car dealership with moldy ceiling panels and frayed carpets. John Kerry, at the time, was at the bottom of a crowded pack, far behind Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, and John Edwards. Our staff of a few dozen then would grow to thousands in the exciting year that followed.

For the next seven months until Caucus Day, I accompanied Senator Kerry on all his travels in Iowa, with three other staffers in a van as we traversed those long, straight highways. We stayed in low-budget motels, eating together in diners, and getting to know the vets halls, bowling alleys, and popular watering holes in places such as Ottuma and Keokuk. I loved the serenity of the prairie, the beautiful colors and symmetry of the fields, and the Norman Rockwell–like farmhouses and silos.

As fast as I said no to a batter-fried Twinkie at the Iowa State Fair, I experienced how Iowa Caucus system is the antithesis to the presidential politics we are accustomed to in California. Here messages are conveyed predominantly through the airwaves. Most voters know little beyond the headlines about the candidates and, save for the affluent who attend fundraisers, rarely get the chance to meet them in person.

Iowa refreshingly offers the opposite. One of my first assignments that summer of ’03 was to set up a media tour of hog lots — industrial slaughterhouses — for Senator Kerry so he could see firsthand, or should I say smell, the havoc they have on their neighbors. Despite my skillful planning and new-found expertise in livestock issues, only one reporter showed up to hear the future Democratic nominee and Secretary of State’s eloquent musings on pigs — a not uncommon occurrence at future press events as we battled to rise in the polls.

But garnering press wasn’t the primary goal. The real point was to give Kerry the chance to have as many one-on-one conversations with potential caucus-goers as possible. The industrious young field staff would organize six voter events each day in diners and vets halls. In those early days, often only a handful of people showed up to size him up. They’d arrive earnestly with binders full of position papers from all the candidates, with parts highlighted in yellow to remind them which question they wanted to ask which would-be president. Kerry enjoyed these lengthy policy conversations, as I believe every candidate does, and would especially warm up when he encountered a fellow veteran. As he’d say his good-byes to head for the next town, the field organizers would scurry to follow up with each attendee in hopes of getting the prize possession: a pledge card indicating that person would stand up for Kerry on caucus night.

Caucus night itself, especially on the Democratic side, is completely unique and unpredictable — which is what makes Monday night so exciting. While the Republican system is a straightforward secret ballot system, the Democratic Caucuses are more complicated and can take hours, challenging even skilled political operatives to master. They begin with a pitch for each candidate, then participants begin moving to different parts of the room, gathering in camps for their candidate. And those who identify as “uncommitted” clump together, all eyes now trained on their every move. Once everyone has taken a position, the first tally is taken. Here’s where it gets interesting: a candidate that has less than 15 percent of the vote is considered no longer viable, and those supporters are up for grabs. During what is called the “realignment period.” the supporters of unviable candidates along with the uncommitted folks need to now join another team. They move around the room as pressure rises, and major cajoling ensues. When the room finally settles down, the next tally is taken, and when all remaining candidates are deemed viable, the final results are in.

Two important features of the Democratic Caucus stand out. The first is that second choices matter. Tonight, most likely, the people to watch are the few O’Malley caucus-goers to see where they land. In 2004, with eight Democratic candidates, Kerry prevailed as the winner in part because he was the second choice of the majority of caucus-goers. The second intriguing feature is the absence of the secret ballot: All of this coaxing and cajoling is done in full view of your peers and neighbors. A persuasive caucus-goer can sometimes sway the outcome, just as an opinionated uncle can steer a Thanksgiving dinner conversation in his direction. That’s what makes Democratic Caucusing so personal and real.

Earnest, personal, and real is the beauty of the Iowa Caucus. All the noise and vitriol coming out of the candidates these days crowd out the quiet truth of what is really happening on Monday: the execution of democracy in a true form, with informed people making their vision for American known to their peers, with the optimism that if their candidate wins, America will be on a better course. For sure, the process would be better served if the Iowa electorate was more diverse and the caucuses were more conducive to the schedules of working people. Yet the people of Iowa, and the expectations they set on those who seek to be president, reminds me — even during this campaign — to stay hopeful about our system for choosing a president.

Laura Capps was John Kerry’s Iowa Communications Director in 2003-2004.


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